Court acknowledges animals’ individual protections under law

An Oregon court quietly issued a ruling recently that has resounding implications for advocates of animals and animal welfare. In State vs. Weldon, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that animals, not their owners, are the actual victims in criminal animal cruelty cases. While this may sound simplistic and self-evident, the ruling pushes the envelope of animals’ status in courts and legislatures.

Legally speaking, animals are pieces of property. As such, they have few inherent rights of their own. When they are harmed or stolen, usually only the human’s losses and injuries count in the eyes of the court.

In Weldon, police found almost 100 dead or dying horses, goats and other farm animals on the defendant’s farm. The defendant was charged with 93 separate counts of cruelty, one per animal. After trial, the jury found him guilty of 20 of those counts. When it came time for sentencing, the trial court merged all 20 counts into a single count of animal abuse because “the animals are not victims.” The trial court decided there was a single victim, the animals’ one owner, and, therefore only a single violation of the animal cruelty law.

The prosecution appealed the case, arguing that each animal was a separate victim that represented a distinct incident of animal cruelty. Oregon statutes do not expressly define the term “victim” for the purposes of the animal cruelty laws, so the appellate court had to look deeper. When there is confusion about the meaning of a statute, courts consider the legislature’s intentions in enacting the law. In Weldon, the appellate court first had to identify the “gravamen” of criminal animal cruelty and, second, determine whom the Legislature intended to protect with the statute.

The court found that the “gravamen” of the animal cruelty laws was the failure to provide proper care to animals in one’s custody or control. This indicated that the Legislature intended to prevent cruelty directly to animals, not necessarily their owners.

The court then went on to the more contentious question whether animals, legally classified as property, could be the ones protected by the law. The answer was yes. First, although numerous other criminal code provisions defined a victim as human, the animal cruelty sections did not. Second, other non-humans had previously been identified as victims of particular crimes, such as “the public.” Third, there was no limitation in the animal cruelty statutes treating animals solely as property in that context. Thus, animals clearly could be considered victims.

Finally, the court had to consider whether the Legislature meant for animals to be the victims when it enacted the animal cruelty cases. Maybe the Legislature meant to protect the public instead, noting its strong interest in animal welfare? No, the court found, the Legislature meant to “protect individual animals as sentient beings, rather than to vindicate a more generalized public interest in their welfare.” As a last consideration, the court noted how absurd it would be if the animals’ owner was the true victim; in most criminal animal cruelty cases, the defendant would be committing a crime against himself.

Having walked through this careful analysis, the Oregon court held that the jury’s verdict of 20 animal cruelty counts could not be merged into a single count of cruelty. The defendant will be sentenced for 20 separate counts.

To the frequent dismay of advocates for various causes, the law usually moves by increments. This article gives a little taste of the detailed and tedious reasoning process that goes on as courts struggle to make sense of laws in today’s society. After a classic legal analysis, the Weldon case yielded an important victory for animal protection in the courts. The bottom line may seem technical and uninteresting, but with its careful and thoughtful opinion, the court was able to find justice for abused animals within the existing system. Under the Weldon view, animals are still considered property, but they are acknowledged as a special kind of property with their own interests protected by law.

Kate Burke is an attorney with Insight Law, LLC, in Durango. She can be reached at kate@insightlawllc.com.

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